It sometimes feels as though George W. Bush has been president forever. Everyone from the voters to the media to even Bush himself seems long past ready for his administration to end. With the presidential campaign in full swing, Bush has receded as far from public view as a president conceivably can-save for frolicking with America’s Olympic beach volleyball players. (As usual, the “fake” news program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, nailed it, labeling its White House segments, “George W. Bush: Still President.”) When Russia invaded neighboring Georgia recently, the two candidates running to replace Bush appeared more presidential than the president. Barack Obama convened a press conference and calmly urged a diplomatic solution. John McCain dispatched Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman to the region as envoys. Bush? He roused himself long enough to scold the Russians (without irony) for invading a sovereign nation. He then went on vacation. When Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast, cable news continuously cycled statements by McCain and Obama. The man who still occupies the Oval Office was an afterthought. Bush may have reached a newfound state of irrelevance beyond “lame duck.” While Bush has clocked out, the rest of his administration-from the vice president on down-is still coming to work every day. They maintain a firm grasp on the levers of power. And they’ve been using it.
In late August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a federal regulation that could restrict women’s access to abortion and contraceptives. The rule would protect workers who refuse to provide family planning or abortion services because of moral or religious beliefs. The government could yank federal funding from hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices all across the country if they don’t accommodate employees’ objections.
The clinic worker who won’t provide women information about abortion couldn’t be transferred to another position. The pharmacist who refuses to fill a birth control prescription couldn’t be fired. (An earlier draft of the rule was even more brazen; it had actually redefined abortion in federal regulations to include anything that prevents implantation of a fertilized egg, which could have included the birth control pill. The final draft backs slightly away from that ledge. Abortion is left undefined, which some pro-choice groups consider a loophole.)
If the proposed rule does take effect-it’s in a final 30-day comment period-it could have a huge impact, especially in Texas. In conservative areas of the state, workers have refused women family planning services before. (In one famous case from 2004, a Denton pharmacist refused to give the morning-after pill to a rape victim and was later fired.)
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt claims the rule was designed to protect workers’ moral beliefs, not restrict access to health care. That may have been the intent. But the effect is predictable enough: Hospitals and clinics-unwilling to jeopardize federal funding-will allow employees to deny vital-and legal-services to thousands of women.
Leavitt’s rule is just one example of the lingering Bush agenda. There will surely be others to come. Although it likely can’t pass legislation through a Democratic Congress, the administration still has numerous ways to slip its ideology into our lives in its final five months: executive orders, rule-making authority, creative dabbling with federal regulations, or perhaps even more military adventurism.
Focusing on the exciting presidential campaign, it’s tempting to ignore the 43rd president, to close our eyes and wish his administration away a few months early. We do so at our peril.